Editor’s note: In September 1996, the NTSB claimed that a dog-training exercise a month before the crash of TWA 800 was responsible for the explosive residue found on the plane. In Part 1 the authors argued that this claim is a classic red herring. A check of the records and a conversation with the officer responsible for the exercise leads one to believe that the exercise took place on another plane.
James Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, co-writes this report with Jack Cashill. Sanders is the author of “The Downing of TWA Flight 800″ and “Altered Evidence,” among other books.
From day one, despite ample eyewitness testimony and troubling FAA radar data, federal authorities suppressed virtually all talk of a missile. When, however, it was revealed that explosive residue was found on the plane, the authorities had to at least allow for the possibility of an explosive device. For a variety of reasons, none of them related to the evidence, those in charge preferred a bomb to a missile.
To this end, Robert Francis, the NTSB vice chairman in charge of the investigation, served as the chief disinformation officer. The word “missile” never seems to have passed his lips, even though all evidence pointed in that direction, including the PETN and RDX which are found in missile warheads and in solid fuels as well as in bombs.
Even when Francis mentioned “bomb,” he inevitably did so in the negative. As testament, consider his comment to CNN on Sept. 21, 1996, “If there was a bomb on the plane, there’s going to be evidence that transcends what we’re talking about here.”
Before news of the dog training broke, Francis had been sounding increasingly shrill and out of touch. When Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times reported on Aug. 14 that recent findings had dealt “a serious blow to the already remote possibility that a mechanical accident caused the crash,” Francis stuck grimly to the spin. He told Van Natta, ”I don’t think anything rules out anything at this point.”
After news of the dog exercise broke, the story began to spin back Francis’s way. A Sept. 20 subhead from CNN – “Bomb not ruled out” – reveals just how matter-of-factly the media had begun to parrot the false dialectic between bomb and mechanical. It also suggests that “mechanical” was now the favored theory, at least by the NTSB and CNN.
Still, the NTSB needed more. The media may have been accepting the fiction that a dog training exercise had taken place on the Flight 800 plane, but this was not enough. As CNN casually reported on Sept. 20, the training aids were “well-wrapped packages of explosives.” If the explosives remained well wrapped throughout the exercise, the NTSB and the FBI could not make a convincing case that these training aids were the source of the residue.
They had to go further. They would have to convince the media that there was not only an exercise on board, but that it was a sloppy, incompetent one. To pull this off, they needed a scapegoat and found one in an innocent African-American police officer with 17 years on the force, two of those dedicated to daily dog-training exercises.
The feds could have cared less about his experience or his reputation. As they told the story, the officer was ill-trained and careless, spilling explosive material all over the plane and leaving it there.
The NTSB summarized its findings on this case in February 1997 in a letter from Chairman Jim Hall to acting FAA administrator Barry Valentine. “The dog handler,” wrote Hall of the officer, “had spilled trace amounts of explosives while placing training aids on board the aircraft during a proficiency training exercise.”
This same officer, Hall added, “told investigators that he was aware that he had spilled trace amounts of explosives.”
“Based on interviews with the dog handler,” the letter continued, “the safety Board determined that he had conducted the training exercise without taking adequate time and precaution when handling the explosive training aids.”
The letter goes on to chastise the officer, claiming that he had likely spilled residue from at least two different sources, all of which he had admitted to the authorities.
Says the officer of his treatment at the hands of the feds, “I am pissed off to this day.” Although shaken by the experience, and understandably wary of the authorities, the officer tells a dramatically different story than the one served up by the NTSB.
“I never lost any,” he says of the explosives. “I never spilled any.” The officer related this to us with clarity and conviction. He adds, “There was never any powder laying loose.” As to his alleged confession of the same, he answers, “I just hate that they twisted my words. I know what I did and how I did it.”
To give further cover to this elaborate charade, Hall had to pretend that the St. Louis episode exposed some larger system-wide problem. In the letter, he demanded that the FAA “develop and implement procedures” to assure “an effective K-9 explosives training program.” In much the same way, the NTSB would later argue for changes in the wiring and in fuel tanks to avoid explosions that never happened.
In this same letter, however, Jim Hall makes a curious admission: “During the recovery of wreckage from TWA Flight 800, trace amounts of explosives were found on the interior surfaces of the cabin and cargo area.”
Unexplained by Hall is how explosives could possibly have been found in the cargo area, an area in which no one claims the officer ever planted training aids.
Even more problematic, the residue found within the passenger cabin – in an area that runs roughly from rows 17 to 27 on the right side of the plane – in no way matches the “zig zag” pattern in which the officer placed the aids. In fact, the officer made no placements within that area.
The NTSB and the FBI had little need to explain anything. The major media had given up the hunt. Their lack of pursuit had allowed conjecture to harden into dogma without the benefit of added fact. By the time the FBI pulled out of the investigation in November 1997, it could say the following without fear of being challenged:
On June 10, 1996 the St. Louis Airport Police Department conducted canine explosives training aboard the victim aircraft. The residue collected after the explosion of Flight 800 was consistent with the explosives utilized during the exercise.
This was brazen. The FBI was claiming that the four training aids placed by an experienced officer in “well wrapped packages” accounted for confirmed residue traces across a wide swath of the right side of the passenger cabin and in the cargo hold as well as reported traces on the wing and the front landing gear.
The only explosive residue that no one could possibly blame the officer for was that reportedly found on the victims’ bodies, reports attested to by no less than Leon Panetta and James Kallstrom. Is it no wonder that the forensic reports on these bodies seem to have vanished?
(FIRO, an independent research group headed by Dr. Thomas Stalcup, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all documents related to the “foreign bodies,” i.e. shrapnel, removed from at least 89 victim bodies and turned over to FBI agents who stood by at each autopsy to seize it. The FBI says it cannot find even one page related to the seizure and testing of the shrapnel. We have found some of these documents as well as FBI documents revealing where some of the shrapnel was sent for further analysis. FOIAs have been filed.)
A year earlier, two months after the interview with the St. Louis police officer, James Kallstrom had been far less conclusive about the dog training. In his conversation with Jim Lehrer on the PBS “News Hour,” Kallstrom admitted that he was not “absolutely” sure “that that’s how the chemicals got there.”
The real proof, Kallstrom acknowledged, would be in the “evidence of the metal – the forensics to go with that.” This is the “evidence that transcends” to which Robert Francis had alluded. As one source told the AP right after the dog training had been revealed, “Now we would definitely need pitting or blast damage to prove there was a bomb placed on board.”
That’s what it all would come down to – physical evidence of pitting or blast damage. There had been numerous, highly credible accounts of such damage. These accounts seem to center on two areas. One is the right wing which reportedly had shown signs of heat blast, pitting and explosive traces on the outside as well as explosive traces and damaged seats in the passenger cabin alongside the wing. Not surprisingly, the wings were left off the reconstructed plane at Calverton.
The other is the area of the front landing gear. This area had also reportedly shown traces of explosive residue. Perhaps more importantly, its doors, as even the NTSB admits, had been blown inwards and off at the very start of the breakup sequence – this despite their location well forward of the center wing tank.
Was the FBI capable of removing such evidence? Senior NTSB investigator Henry Hughes certainly thought so. In May of 1999, he testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley.
“Another problem that occurred,” Hughes told the committee, “and it was recognized about 2 months into the investigation, was the disappearance of parts from the hangar.”
Please note that it was almost exactly “2 months into the investigation” when the dog training story was introduced. Those responsible now understood that the proof of a missile attack might all come down to the “evidence of the metal – the forensics.”
As Hughes told the Grassley committee, on one particular day his team took a complete inventory of the hangar to see if anything would come up missing the following day. “Not to our surprise,” he told the senator, “we found that seats were missing and other evidence had been disturbed.”
Soon after, in something of a sting that Hughes encouraged the FBI to set up, the FBI caught two or three of its own agents in the hangar without authorization at 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning. “I supervised that project,” said Hughes of the work under way in the hangar, “and these people had no connection to it.”
According to Hughes, a “serious leadership problem during the course of the investigation” had plagued the NTSB. He referred here specifically, and by name, to one Robert Francis.
“I have participated in over 110 major transportation accident investigation while with the NTSB,” wrote Hughes to the committee at a later date, “and the TWA-800 investigation is the only one in which the NTSB Board Member in charge was never available to the investigative staff.”
In 1995, in that most desperate year of his political career, Bill Clinton plucked Robert Francis out of an obscure FAA posting in Europe and designated him as vice chairman of the NTSB. Why Clinton picked Francis, we do not know. But the role he played in this investigation is unmistakable.
For the first several months, he worked relentlessly to steer the media away from a missile or even a bomb. That accomplished, he more or less disappeared from the most controversial airline disaster ever, undermining his own staff and leaving the criminal obstructionists within the investigation to their work.
At a public forum some time later, Air National Guard pilot and crash eyewitness Maj. Fritz Meyer gave a very telling account of his own meeting with Francis in September of 1996, most likely before the dog story materialized:
During that time I had an opportunity to fly over with a friend of mine to the hangar at Calverton where we landed in the grass. This friend of mine is an employee in the FAA and he is also a weekend warrior with the air guard unit. He took me into the hangar and he introduced me to Bob Francis who was the person in the NTSB in charge of the investigation for the NTSB. He had known Bob when Bob had worked in the FAA – so they are old buddies and he introduced me. “This is Fritz Meyer. He is the pilot who was flying the night the plane went down.”
So we started talking and we got separated from the people – Adm. Christiansen – who had flown over to the hangar, and I was talking with just 4 people together. There was my friend, Bob Francis, a young lady from the NTSB – I can’t remember her name – and myself. As we walked along Bob Francis turned and looked away from me and sort of collected himself, and he turned back to me and he said: “You know, we’re getting away from that missile theory.”
I laughed in his face, and he was crestfallen – he was distraught – and after that when I just laughed right at him we began to have a frank discussion. As we walked along we walked up to a nose wheel casting, and it was all ripped and shredded – the tire was completely shredded, and it was lying on a table or a frame of some kind in the hangar and we had had a more or less candid discussion about the crash and as we walked up he showed me this thing – and it had striations across it – great deep cuts through the alloy of the wheel casting. And he said: “You know my people tell me that this is sign of a high velocity explosion.”
Those were his words. I made a mistake – I told this to a reporter about three months later, and he picked up the phone and called Bob Francis, and Bob Francis denied he had ever met me – had seen my face on television but he had never met me in person.
Encoded in Meyer’s encounter with Francis is the DNA of the entire investigation: a conscious steering away from the obvious missile explanation, a begrudging acknowledgment of the physical evidence, a denial of everything afterwards, and the failure of the media to follow up.
What causes a presumably good man like Francis to serve his staff and his nation so badly? In our experience, it is much less often lust for money or power than it is fear, a fear that can paralyze when citizens lose confidence in the media.
Consider, for instance, the following e-mail we received from the New Jersey homicide detective who served as our liaison to the St. Louis officer just as we were wrapping up this article (capitalization his):
Rec’d a call today from [the St. Louis officer]. I wasn’t here, so he left a message in my voice mail. Thanked you and I for our support of him. BUT, it seemed apparent from what he said that the powers-to-be have come down on him and he’s been told (read: ORDERED) to stay away from anything to do with TWA-800, and he mentioned specifically that he’s been told not to assist you (with your next videotape). Unlike the first time I spoke with him, he hesitated frequently during his message, and I was left with the distinct impression that he was a little nervous, a bit uptight, maybe even a little scared. That was my cop-to-cop impression. Also, there was an implication during the message that should he violate the order against involving himself in anything TWA-800 related, then he might find his job in jeopardy. Thought I would pass this on FYI.
If you ever wonder why it is that “people just don’t come forward,” here is the answer in a nutshell. The power to silence dissent runs deep and far because we allow it to. But the sad truth is that when America ceases to be the home of the brave, it will also cease to be the land of the free.